Veterans share their experiences in the military and at HLS

Joseph Kearns Goodwin ’13 [right] with Brigadier General Mike Ryan

Joseph Kearns Goodwin ’13 [right] with Brigadier General Mike Ryan

Among this year’s entering class at Harvard Law School are 10 U.S. Marines and Army soldiers, all of whom served in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan – or both.

Dean Martha Minow, who hosted a dinner for a dozen HLS veterans on Nov. 10, said: “The HLS students with military service experience are, to a person, superb individuals; we are so lucky to have the benefit of their talent, values, and experiences and to participate in their professional development.”

Of the 10 members of this year’s class, one is an LLM candidate; the others are in the J.D. program. Five are part of HLS’s Yellow Ribbon Program, through which the U.S. Veteran’s Administration matches the amount a law school offers to pay for a veteran’s tuition and expenses. HLS is one of very few schools that make the maximum commitment – 50 percent – which means, with the VA’s match, these veterans attend for free.

Below, four veterans share their experiences in the military and at HLS.

Joseph Kearns Goodwin ’13

Joseph Kearns Goodwin ’13 was just a few months out of Harvard College, living with his family in Concord, Mass., when the terrorists struck on September 11, 2001. The next day, Goodwin headed to the nearby military recruiting center in Billerica and joined the Army.

Goodwin was inspired to enlist because the country would need the service of its young people, and because he “realized I’d been afforded basically every advantage you can get from a free and prosperous society,” as he said on the Charlie Rose program in 2009, where he appeared with his mother, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. After basic training including airborne training, Goodwin soon found himself in Baghdad, where he spent 13 months in charge of 31 soldiers as a combat platoon leader with the Army’s 1st Armored Division. Goodwin completed his military commitment after four and a half years and was happily ensconced in civilian life, working for NBC Universal in New York City and contemplating law school, when he was recalled by the Army and sent to Afghanistan in 2008.

While Goodwin had experienced the war in Iraq at the ground level, in Afghanistan he got invaluable perspective at the highest levels, serving as an adviser to the Director of Strategic Communications for both the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan. While he never expected to spend six years of his life in the military, he doesn’t regret it.

“In all my experiences in the military, I got a lot more out than I put in,” says Goodwin, who was awarded the Bronze Star medal for exemplary performance in combat. The women and men he served with ranged in age from 18 to 40, and represented every race and socioeconomic background, he says. “Everybody exhibited a level of competence, compassion and dedication, not only to what they were doing but to each other, which is massively impressive,” he says. “It reaffirms your faith in people.”

His experience in Afghanistan cemented his decision to study law. Missing the deadline for applying to HLS, Goodwin spent his 1L year at Suffolk Law School before transferring this year to Harvard. Having worked on several political campaigns, including as chief of staff for Steve Pagliuca’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2009 (where he met his now wife Victoria (Bonney) Goodwin), Goodwin is not ruling out a political career for himself. “Having been places in the world where you see how much of a positive impact a caring and effective government could make,” he says, “it would be pretty rewarding to be part of that.”

—Elaine McArdle

Kenneth Anthony Laretto LL.M. ‘12

Captain Kenneth Anthony Laretto, who graduated with distinction from Stanford Law School in 2002, was just about to finish his clerkship at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit when he decided to seek a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps. “I was just about to turn 28, and practically speaking, it was the last opportunity to join the military before I became too old,” he recalls. “So I decided to do it.”

An Army brat who grew up in Northern Virginia while his father was stationed at the Pentagon, Laretto is a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University with a double major in history and musicology. After graduating from basic training in Quantico, Va. – where he learned the combat skills required of every Marine – he completed the Basic Lawyer Course at the Naval Justice School in Newport, R.I., and quickly found himself doing all the tasks of a general practice attorney, from wills to divorces and custody cases, for Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

A year later, he was headed to Al Qa’im, Iraq, with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. By the time his battalion arrived, most of the heavy combat was over, and their mission was focused more on achieving security and stability. As the command battalion’s judge advocate, Laretto oversaw the detainee facility and ensured that its conditions complied with the Geneva conventions as well as any military order that applied. He adjudicated cases in which locals were seeking damages under the Foreign Claims Act, and also served as the liaison with local judges, assisting in setting up a criminal court.

“You have to have a functioning court system, you have to have the rule of law integrated with the judiciary, and a lot of that is linking people together and setting ground rules,” says Laretto. “We can teach Iraqi police all the American law enforcement standards we want, but when it comes down to it, the Iraqi judges understand the nuances of the [civil] code and how the police need to operate within it.”

After seven months in Iraq, his battalion returned to the U.S., and he prosecuted criminal cases for six months before being named Deputy Staff Judge Advocate for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command in Quantico, where he advised the commander on legal matters related to recruitment. When he was chosen for the Marines’ Advanced Degree Program, he chose HLS for an LLM because of its strength in national security and international law. He’s also getting a graduate degree in national security policy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and is looking forward to a long career in national security policy and law, both in the Marines as well as in post-military federal government service.

—Elaine McArdle

Karl Sigwarth ’14

Like many veterans, Karl Sigwarth ’14 has carried the lessons learned in the military into his life after leaving the service. One that has served him well as a first-year student at HLS is that when called upon, you need to be prepared.

“It’s kind of analogous to when I was in the military because you rapidly learn that ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer,” he said. “You have to go that extra mile to make sure that you’ve clarified something.”

Going the extra mile—both literally and figuratively—has been a way of life for Sigwarth. As an officer stationed at Camp Pendleton in California with the U.S. Marine Corps, for which he served from 2006 to shortly before he began at HLS, he traveled to Japan, Korea, and most recently Afghanistan, where he coordinated artillery support for counterinsurgency operations. He also coordinated messages sent to Afghan civilians about military operations. “The Marines earned the trust of the local residents because we treated them fairly, and we treated them honorably,” he said. For his eight-month tour there, which ended in April, he was awarded the Navy & Marine Corps Commendation Medal for meritorious service.

His transition to HLS has been helped, said Sigwarth, by his fellow students, who have been supportive and curious about his military experience. He doesn’t know yet what career path he would like to pursue after graduation, but for now he embraces the intellectual challenge of law school, his appreciation for it enhanced by his service to his country.

“One of the biggest things I’ve taken from it is a sense of perspective,” Sigwarth said. “When you have a bunch of reading assignments for class, you realize you’ve been given an opportunity to sit and read and understand the material. There are far worse things in the world that can stress you out.”

—Lewis Rice

Chris Suenram ‘14

As a member of the U.S. Army’s elite Special Forces for five years, Christopher Suenram ’14 has been in situations that would terrify all but the rarest of people. He spent seven months in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, on frequent combat missions in the desert and searching by helicopter for suspected insurgents. An honors graduate of sniper training, and an engineer trained in explosive ordnance disposal, he lived for seven months in Peru training that nation’s navy seals in counter-narcotics operations. During five months in Guatemala, he wore a bullet-proof vest as he worked as a liaison between the Special Forces and the DEA on counter-drug issues. And, as a High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) airborne soldier—specially trained to avoid detection by enemy radar—he’s leapt from planes at 18,000 feet carrying a 100-pound combat load, in free fall for two minutes before opening his parachute just 4,000 feet above the ground.

“These are experiences you couldn’t get any other way” than Special Forces, he says, cheerfully.

But it wasn’t until he left the Army in 2010 and decided to apply to law school that Suenram had his first panic attack. “I remember thinking that I hadn’t been in a classroom in almost 10 years, that I didn’t know if my brain had somehow been changed by my time in the military, whether all the explosions I’d experienced had somehow changed the way I thought,” he says, laughing. “It was the first panic attack in my life, thinking that I might not make it into any law school.”

Suenram, who plans a career in public service, perhaps in the federal government, says his experience in Afghanistan influenced his desire to study law so that he can help people access the justice system. In college –Suenram is an honors graduate of the University of Kansas and is fluent in Spanish and Italian — planned to become a physician like his father, but the terrorist attacks of 9/11 inspired him to want to join the Special Forces.

After leaving the service, he was working at a Guatemalan orphanage – “an incredibly difficult experience,” he says—when the HLS Admissions office called to interview him. “I was standing near the burn pit, trying to talk to Dean Rubenstein and not be distracted by all the little kids around me,” he recalls. He chose HLS because of its unparalleled financial support for veterans in the Yellow Ribbon Program. “Being from the Midwest, I think had a perception that Harvard was going to be kind of cold and elitist and not terribly friendly,” he says. “It’s been the absolute opposite. I’ve felt more comfortable at law school than at any other school, and that’s a surprise.”

—Elaine McArdle